Also see Lesser Prairie Chicken’s Fate No Simple Matter
MANHATTAN, Kan. – The lesser prairie chicken’s fate will change in September, following a court-mandated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement.
The agency’s decision also may affect farmers and ranchers whose land now serves as the bird’s habitat in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. In fact, some producers already are preparing for the possibility – while other producers are preparing to fight it.
The FWS has several options:
* Announce that the agency is removing the lesser prairie chicken from its candidates list, which has included the bird’s name since 1998.
* Propose listing the upland game bird as a threatened or endangered species (as authorized under the Endangered Species Act of 1973).
This would lead to another year of data gathering and analyses. It would involve at least one hearing, somewhere in the lesser prairie chicken’s range, and 60 days for public comment. After that, a team of scientists and stakeholders would have a year or so to develop and implement a species recovery plan.
The lesser prairie chicken is a small grouse that needs the wide-open spaces of short-grass prairielands. Largely due to changes in its habitat, the bird’s population numbers have been declining for years. The great majority of that habitat was and still is privately owned land – typically ranchland.
Ironically, though, its range is actually expanding in Kansas, which is home to about half of today’s total population. Kansas also is the only state that still has a lesser prairie chicken hunting season. Several studies have found hunting impacts less than 2 percent of the state’s population.
The FWS’s Sept. 30 deadline for deciding the bird’s status is part of court settlement, approved about a year ago. Several environmental groups had sued the agency for not making fast enough progress. The resulting agreements are an FWS work plan for reviewing some 250 candidate species within six years.
The lesser prairie chicken review is now the purview of the FWS’s Southwest Regional Office, based in Albuquerque. Overseeing the process is Michelle Shaughnessy, assistant regional director.
“We’re looking for the best available science,” Shaughnessy explained. “But, the only way this is going to work into the future – even if we don’t list the species – is for us to work with partners, landowners and stakeholders to keep the conversation … the dialog going.”
State and federal agencies and university scientists are among the partners helping the FWS gather the needed scientific data about the species, its habitat, stressors and population trends. Some are also helping landowners institute or improve habitat management practices, in hopes of heading off the lesser prairie chicken’s listing.
Shaughnessy herself is working with farmers/ranchers in several states and with oil/gas drillers in Texas to help them qualify for a CCA – a Candidate Conservation Agreement. It allows volunteer landowners to implement recommended conservation measures now. A completed CCA is automatic protection against further requirements if the lesser prairie chicken is actually listed as a threatened or endangered species.
“My guess is that if you have prairie chickens on your land, you’re already doing some of those things anyway,” she said.
Two Shaughnessy interviews about the review process and related conservation efforts are available for online listening at Agriculture Today archives. (See the archives for 7/10/2012 and 7/17/2012.)
She was a guest on Agriculture Today, a K-State Radio Network program hosted by Eric Atkinson at Kansas State University. His Tuesday discussion series about the lesser prairie chicken began July 3.